Housing Bill (Allocation of Time)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:08 pm on 16th April 1980.

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Photo of Mr David Alton Mr David Alton , Liverpool Edge Hill 6:08 pm, 16th April 1980

I am well aware of that point and I shall come to it later. I began by making that protest, but I continue by sharing the protest already made by Members of the Labour Opposition about the way in which the Government are attempting to guillotine the Bill at this stage.

There are far more important issues in the Bill than the sale of council properties, and many of these are being camouflaged and hidden from the public in an attempt to pass, by sleight of hand a Bill that will have profound implications for the way in which our housing services are administered throughout the country. There is the whole question of local autonomy, which is particularly significant in this Bill. The rights of tenants are also very important. The Bill ignores and camouflages many of these areas.

For instance, figures issued by the Department of the Environment last month indicated that the number of new council houses started in January was probably lower than at any time since the Second World War, yet there are still more than 1 million people living in houses without inside sanitation, and there are still thousands on council waiting lists. The Government talk as though the sale of council houses will solve all those problems or make them go away overnight.

Many important issues remain undebated. The Government will introduce a stream of amendments which will be read out and put to the vote without discussion. The only amendments by Labour or Liberal Members, or by the few enlightened Conservative Members who may protest at some of the actions that the Government are taking, which will put to the vote are those that will have been fortunate enough to be the subject of a limited debate. That is surely a negation of democracy.

The Secretary of State talked about his manifesto commitments as though they were his exclusive right. At the general election his party polled 33 per cent. of the vote. That was slightly better than the 29 per cent. polled by the previous Government, but it is representative of only one-third of the British people and it is arrogant to assume that the Government's mandate represents a vast number of electors.

Every local councillor elected to every council taking decisions on the sale of council houses also has a mandate, has been elected, and has the right to say whether council houses should be sold. The Secretary of State is riding roughshod over elementary democracy in denying those locally elected representatives the opportunity to put their point of view and to take decisions about areas that they know a great deal more about than does the Secretary of State.

Housing is essentially a local service, and one man's meat can be another man's poison. What is right for some inner cities may be wrong for others; what is right for some rural areas may be wrong for others; what is right in some urban areas is often wrong in rural areas. There has been a deliberate attempt by those debating the Bill to try to ignore the differences between areas.

The Secretary of State said that the Bill would revive the private rented sector. I believe that it ensures that the safeguards that have been built up for many private tenants over the years will be removed and there will again be unfettered Rachmanism in our towns and cities. I am sure that many people, having had their security removed, will be worried about what is to happen to them, their families and their homes.

The Government are adopting double standards. Why does the Secretary of State not give those in the private sector the same rights that he is giving public sector tenants? Local authorities should be able, dependent on local circumstances, to decide whether private tenants should also have a right to buy.

I can think of many examples in my own city of Liverpool where there are thousands of people living in squalid conditions. Many live in the private sector. Indeed, 30 per cent. of tenanted properties in Liverpool are in the private sector, compared with the national figure of 13 per cent.

Many private landlords have refused to provide even basic amenities such as an inside toilet and bathroom. How dearly many of those private tenants would like the chance to buy their homes, to get improvement grants and to exercise some home help. But the Secretary of State's double standards do not give those in the private sector the opportunity to get what he says those in the public sector should have. It is all very well to talk about housing need, but the money supply for housing is being cut back savagely, and by ignoring that the Secretary of State is covering up and camouflaging the basic problem confronting local authorities.

The Labour-controlled local authority in Liverpool decided two weeks ago to end improvement grants for those in the private sector and not to provide any more mortgages. The council took that decision because it believed that there should be no redundancies in its works department. My Liberal colleagues on the council said that that was a doctrinaire and wrong decision. We believe that some compromise should have been arrived at, but because the money supply to local authorities has been reduced they are being left with that sort of unpalatable choice.

The Liverpool authority had to decide whether to put more people on the dole, in a city where there is already 12 per cent. unemployment, or to end improvement grants in the private sector—which will also have implications for employment in the construction industry.

The Secretary of State said that if he were in opposition he would be opposing the guillotine motion. That sums up his cynicism and disregard for the fundamental issues involved. The Secretary of State seems to have an obsession with home ownership. I believe in the extension of home ownership and I should like to see more people having the chance to own their own homes, but with mortgage rates at 15 per cent. and the Government continuing to allow the MLR to stand at 17 per cent., what chance have many people got of becoming home owners?

I see many "For Sale" notices on our homes-for-sale developments in Liverpool. I have people telling me that they can no longer afford their mortgage repayments and asking whether I can get them into council properties Liverpool already has a vast number of people on its council house waiting list. The Government's crude obsession with the money supply does not take into account its effect on the housing market and so on.

More than 50 per cent. of British homes are already owner-occupied. That is a higher proportion than in West Germany, France, Holland or Denmark. By 1977, houses made up nearly 35 per cent. of personal wealth, compared with 19 per cent. in 1960. Massive funds have been diverted from what one might call productive investment.

In 1978, the then Government spent or remitted £.5½ billion of taxpayers' money—one-third of the yield of income tax—to distort the housing market. Yet that massive injection of funds has produced little result. The public house building programme, which is just emerging from the tower block lunacies of the 1960s, is being crippled by interest charges and the Government's cash limits. We see £1 billion being given away in mortgage relief on the top slice of personal income, so that the richest house buyers have borrowed and spent as much as they can—bidding up house prices in the process, and making it increasingly difficult for first-time house buyers.

Council house waiting lists are lengthening, estates are being increasingly vandalised and private housing is deteriorating as spiralling mortgage rates swallow up more and more of home owners' money. What does the Secretary of State do? He says that we should sell council homes—as though that will solve all those basic problems. I sometimes think that if the right hon. Gentleman had been on board the "Titanic" when it started to sink, he would have been busily rearranging the deck chairs.

Against the background of the crisis in housing, the Bill is largely irrelevant. It ignores the crazy system of housing finance. When will the Government at last announce that mortgage relief will be paid only at standard rates of tax? What hope will they give to the 1½ million still living in homes without inside sanitation?

The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean) tried to introduce a Bill to improve conditions in hostels for the homeless. The needs of those people were ignored by the Government and 13 people had to die in a fire in London to force the Government to respond. But for that, they would have done nothing for those who fester in squalid lodging houses and hostels. When the Bill was first introduced, it did nothing to help. Council houses are compulsorily up for grabs, but the same rights of home ownership have not been given to the 13·9 per cent. of the population who are tenants in private property.

Of course we support the extension of home ownership and believe that more people should have the chance of owning their own homes. I believe that that is a good way of ensuring liberty and equality. But the Government's policies of compulsion are hopelessly misguided. They seem to forget that where the gauleiter leads—here I use the words of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) in the debate on Second Reading—the commissar may well follow. Council house sales may well be suitable for some authorities, but in other areas it may be the worst thing that could happen to them.

In rural areas where numbers are such that small shifts in the balance between public and private housing stock can fundamentally affect the future of a community it is crass nonsense—quite absurd—to go on with the sale of council houses.